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Jayne Mansfield's Car

2012 | 122 min | R | 2.39:1

Jayne Mansfield's Car


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Theatrical release date

 13 September, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Jayne Mansfield's Car Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, September 13, 2013

It’s been a little over a decade since Billy Bob Thornton last directed a feature. That’s a long time between efforts, especially when the previous movie was 2001’s “Daddy and Them,” a forgotten southern story that effectively grounded Thornton’s interests in the job after securing accolades for his helming debut, “Sling Blade.” “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” plays directly to the lauded actor’s strengths, taking viewers down to the heart of Alabama to explore the fits and foibles of a dysfunctional family, leaving room for an able ensemble to bloody their fists some with a barbed screenplay, with Thornton a permissive leader, hoping to catch blips of fury and vulnerability as the picture takes a leisurely stroll down a path of self-destruction.

The year is 1969, and in Morrison, Alabama, Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) is an elderly man with an interest in car accidents who’s disappointed in his three sons. Hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon) is protesting the Vietnam War, embarrassing the family with his outspoken opinions and shaggy appearance. Skip (Bill Bob Thornton) is disturbed and misunderstood, looking to chemical leadership from Carroll and approval from Jim to soothe his shattered soul. Jimbo (Robert Patrick) is a homebody and the only son who didn’t fight in WWII, much to his great shame. When Jim learns his ex-wife has passed, he’s stunned to learn she’s being returned to Alabama for her funeral, forcing the angry man to deal with the British family that stole her away. Arriving in town for the service, Kingsley (John Hurt) and his children, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor), find themselves knocked flat by culture shock, only to warm up to the Caldwells in unexpected ways, commencing a long week of affairs, confessions, and confrontations.

Co-written by Thornton and Tom Epperson, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is a film about collisions, ranging from the car crash variety of Jim’s unnerving hobby (every night, he monitors police radio chatter for fresh accidents) to the meeting of the families, brought together by the death of a special lady in both their lives. It’s a character piece, tracing the interests of people in dire need of personal connection, heading off in a handful of directions that detail how the two clans become one for a week, drunk off a shared fascination with the other’s cultural and behavioral quirks. There’s not much of a plot, but there’s plenty of strange interactions and tortured histories to keep the movie in motion for a good 90 minutes, with Thornton the ideal guide into this southern discomfort.

War and its many literal and psychological scars play a major role in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” with the Caldwell boys a study in combat shock, finding Carroll using his WWII past to criticize Vietnam, hoping his own son will be lucky enough to avoid the draft while partaking in the limited countercultural pursuits found around town. Skip is a broken man, haunted by a traumatic experience in the Air Force, now funneling his attention into cars while trying to please his dismissive father. Jim also has a history of combat, having served in WWI, bonding with Kingsley over the particulars of the Great War and how that hard-fought masculinity has resulted in severe disappointment with their own children. The screenplay routinely returns to the influence of service, studying how this honor has stained their lives and distanced their relationships, with unspoken and unfulfilled wishes for connection have torn the families apart.

Drugs also work to mummify the Caldwells, with experimentation taking over Carroll and Skip, while the climax of the film details a powerful LSD trip that shakes up key relationships. The highs are profound, yet “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is most successful with its subplots, following the characters as they explore taboo connections, watching Phillip flirt with married Caldwell daughter Donna (Katherine LaNasa), while Skip embarks on a strangely sexual experience with Camilla, getting off on her accent, while she warms to his forward manner and disturbing secrets. The burgeoning friendship between Jim and Kingsley is also compelling, observing the ice melt away once common experiences and interests are found, stunning everyone who expected the die-hard southerner to tear off the Englishman’s head for stealing his wife. The ensemble helps the cause with sharp, sticky-fingered, meaningful performances that avoid most clichés, working to find the pain and isolation fatigue that connects these vivid personalities.

Thornton sets a pleasingly musical mood with an assertive score, and the picture’s locations are evocative, preserving Alabama atmosphere. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is easily 20 minutes too long and terribly indulgent in its final act, finding Thornton unable to let go of these characters. His craving is certainly understandable, but the aimlessness of the movie turns into punishment once the story resolves itself and there’s still a half hour to go. Still, Thornton’s approach is liquid enough to allow for a few poignant and unsettling moments, keeping the film captivating and organically felt before it becomes unbearable.

Starring: Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, Robert Patrick
Director: Billy Bob Thornton

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